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Banking inquiry: Those hoping for full disclosure will be let down

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Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern. Photo: Don MacMonagle

This Wednesday should be an important day for all those in this country who value democracy, transparency and accountability.

All things being equal, the beginning of public hearings of the much awaited Oireachtas Banking Inquiry, would be an important milestone.

But before it has begun in earnest, this inquiry is already doomed to fail.

An overly ambitious schedule, an unrealistic timescale, incredibly restrictive legal parameters and an inability to examine the full story, means the inquiry can never fully achieve what the vast majority of the Irish people want it to.

Those close to it and involved in it have conceded it is unlikely ever conclude its work and produce a report and we as a country will be left once again with an incomplete picture of how the darkest episode in our financial history came to pass.

Conducting this kind of Oireachtas inquiry as opposed to a Levinson-type quasi-judicial examination has brought its fair share of criticism, because of the limitations such a move involves.

Those limitations, now coming to the fore, are significant and descriptions of the inquiry being 'toothless' are valid.

The internal documents given by advisers, legal and economic, contain a myriad of restrictions and limitations which will have the cumulative effect of rendering the ability of members to ask the kind of probing detailed questions required as non-existent.

What the Irish public really want to see is the likes of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, his ministers, senior officials and those senior bank executives who were involved explain their roles.

The public has had to wait six years already to hear such evidence, and news that severe limitations are to exist over all evidence is a worrying development.

Because of cabinet confidentiality, Cowen and his ministers are unlikely to be able to give a full insight to what happened on the night of the guarantee, which culminated in €440bn of bank liabilities being covered.

That decision ultimately cost the taxpayer €64bn and the public in any democracy has the right to know how such a momentous decision was arrived at.

The inquiry will on Wednesday and Thursday explore two of the previously published reports into the banking crisis. The Wright and Nyberg reports would have taken testimony in private from many of the key players, but the idea of the inquiry would be to hear that evidence in public.

Seeing Cowen, Bertie Ahern and others put through their paces as to their decisions in a public forum would be a very important part of the country laying the ghosts of our building boom and banking bust to rest.

If all we are left with is a highly sanitised chat where no one can say a bad word about anyone, then the very viability of this inquiry and its expected €5m cost come into question. Inquiry chairman, Labour's Ciaran Lynch, and his 11-member team have a fresh challenge in managing down expectations as the full extent of the legal restrictions emerge.

Cabinet confidentiality, perceptions of bias, ongoing legal cases involving Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide are just some of the limitations preventing this from being the inquiry it should be. Also the absence of the late Brian Lenihan is another. But the other big factor is time.

Very few feel the inquiry can finish before the General Election. If it doesn't, all of this will have been for nothing.

Irish Independent